More History

From Gray Bell October, 2001

Earlier this fall an issue of Collage carried a brief article listing celebrities who have had connections in the past with the Claremont colleges. One of those listed was Joan Baez, with HMC as the related college. Since few if any now know how that connection came about, I thought I had better put it into the record for future reference.

Actually it was the HMC Physics Department that brought Joan Baez to Claremont in the early sixties but not for the reasons that you might guess. No, we did not recognize that she had an unusual voice and we did not feel that the department needed a vocalist. Nor did those of us who were in the department at that time have much of an appreciation for pop music of that day. However, we were adding faculty to the department each year and were on the lookout for physicists.

In those days the business of hiring new faculty was left up to the department chairmen and Joe Platt. There was no appointment procedure, such as we have today, and no RPT Committee. We did not even have a Dean of the Faculty, so appointments were made on a rather informal basis. You might even say that it was done on the “old buddy system.” For example, Joe found out that I might be a prospect in 1957 by calling up his buddy, Bob Bacher, then chair of the Physics Department at Caltech.

So it was that Al Focke, chair of our Physics Department at the time, got the word out in 1959 that we were hiring and I, as the number-two man in the department, did some of the follow-up. In the file there is a letter to me, dated September 22, 1959, from one Albert V. Baez, saying that Focke had been in touch with him and that “the whole setup looks very attractive.”

At that time Al Baez was working with the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) in Watertown, Massachusetts, and his age was 47. He held degrees from Drew University in New Jersey and from Syracuse University in New York. His Ph.D. in physics was obtained at Stanford in 1950 and he taught there as a visiting professor for two years in the mid-50s. He had written several articles in “X-ray Microscopy and Micro-Radiography,” published by Academic Press, but his main interest in the 1950’s was teaching. For six years he had taught at the University of Redlands and, as a fellow Quaker, knew Leonard Dart, the first physicist hired by Scripps and CMC in the mid-50’s for their Joint Science Department. In the early fifties he headed up a UNESCO mission in Iraq for a couple of years before working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and serving on the Physical Science Study Committee. Thus, to Al, Joe and me he looked like an interesting person for a slot on our faculty, and the Joint Sciences Department was interested in him as a sabbatical replacement for Dart. Little did we know that he might bring along with him a daughter whose name would become a household word.

Negotiations with Al Baez went on through the spring of 1960 and in May of that year an offer was made to him for the “coming academic year.” It seems that Baez was somewhat uncertain as to just how long he wanted to be located in Claremont and so Joe wrote to him that “we can look together at the longer future when your plans are more certain.” Having worked at Caltech with Paul Kirkpatrick on x-ray research, Baez knew Burt Henke at Pomona College and looked forward to possibilities for collaboration with him. The arrangement to teach Leonard Dart’s physics course at CMC and Scripps appealed to him because he (Baez) was working on a physics textbook that would be, he hoped, appropriate for liberal arts students. Baez’s book used what he called a “spiral approach” to physics. He felt that the presentation of physical concepts needed to be repeated a number of times with ever increasing sophistication as the student’s understanding progressed and he developed that idea in a more overt way than one finds in most textbooks. “The New College Physics, A Spiral Approach” was finally published by W. H. Freeman & Co. in 1967 and I have no idea how well it was received.

Al Baez was a very likable person and those of us who worked with him came to admire his teaching capabilities as well as his personality. We also liked his wife, Joan, and his three daughters. Neither Leonard nor I can remember now the name of the Baez’s oldest daughter but Joan, the singer, was the second child and Mimi was the youngest. They rented a house on Berkley and entertained quite frequently. Both Mimi and Joan were musicians and Mimi later earned accolades for her 25 years of work with Bread & Roses. Many remember concerts in Claremont a number of years later by Joan after she had become famous but, because the Baez family were in Claremont for only a short time, the fact that they ever lived here is not well known.

Joan’s career as a folk singer began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1959 while Al was teaching at MIT. She performed regularly at Club 47, a folk music club in Cambridge, and soon attracted a large and devoted following. Thus, she was seen only occasionally in Claremont at that time. She appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 as a solo performer and made her New York City concert debut on November 5 of 1960. That same month her first album for Vanguard Recording Society, Joan Baez, was released and became a huge success.

Our file on Al Baez shows rather clearly how it came about that Baez left us after only one year of teaching in Claremont. As I mentioned above, there was always some uncertainty about Baez’s long term plans. As far back as early May of 1960 he wrote a letter to Focke saying that he was under pressure to take a two-year job in Paris with UNESCO. He proposed that he begin at HMC in the fall of 1960 and then take a two-year leave during the 1961–63 academic years. Focke responded negatively to this idea, pointing out that it did not fit into HMC’s expansion plan for that time. Baez then wrote a long letter to Joe Platt spelling out his idea and arguing that his plan could be made to fit well into HMC’s needs over the next four years. I do not know quite how this problem got resolved but in the summer of 1961 the Baez family left Claremont and moved to Paris. I do know that Al Focke fully expected him to return and that for several years after that Focke made tentative plans for fitting Baez back into our teaching program.

As it turned out, Al Baez ended up spending six years with UNESCO and never returned to a teaching position in Claremont. During the summer of 1967 he taught a summer course at Harvard and then moved to Carmel Valley, California. He still lives in that area with his wife Joan. Earlier this year Mimi died of cancer. Joan, the singer, has had a number of ups and downs in her career as well as in her personal life but continues to perform. On Sunday, September 16 of this year she appeared in Palo Alto at a gathering to remember the victims of the recent tragedies in New York and offered her version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Thus it seems we have not heard the last of Joan Baez and Claremont can rightly claim a connection with that celebrity.

Graydon D. Bell

Physics Department Historian